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The War On Drugs: Headphones On the Highway

by Bill Murphy on May 29, 2014

And of course, whether you’re on a creative journey or an actual get-in-the-van excursion, you tend to pick up new friends along the way. The War on Drugs’ ardent following certainly noticed a surprise boost in their ranks during the band’s 2011 tour when, somewhat out of left field, Granduciel decided to throw a cover song into the set. Almost anyone who knows him would have thought Dylan for sure—but the Grateful Dead’s ‘80s hit “Touch Of Grey?” You don’t hear that one every day.

“It’s just a song that’s right up our alley,” Granduciel raves. “It sounds like a War on Drugs song. We started playing it in Indianapolis, and someone filmed it. I don’t think we even played the whole song—I didn’t even know the lyrics. We were just fucking around for like, 30 people there, and someone puts it on the Internet, and three nights later, we’re in Chicago and there are Deadheads in the crowd. It was as if they had an app on their phone or something, like ‘Touch Of Grey’ is being played tonight!” he laughs. “But it was the right song at the time.”

The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner certainly thought so. When news broke last summer that a long-rumored Dead tribute album, curated by the twin brothers as a benefit for the AIDS-fighting Red Hot Organization, was in fact a reality, the Dessners immediately confirmed that The War on Drugs would contribute to the project.

“Aaron’s been kind of a fan of ours for a couple of years now,” Granduciel notes. “Plus, he was coming to Philly pretty often to work on Sharon [Van Etten]’s record. So when he reached out, I told him we wanted to reserve ‘Touch Of Grey’ because I did want to record it. It’s been a little more challenging than I thought it would be only because I don’t want to just half-ass it. I want it to sound like our band, and at the same time, try to chase the spirit of the song because it’s got all the elements of War on Drugs music. It stays right on the beat, with some nice changes. So right now, the structure is there, the sounds are there, and when I take it to Jeff [Zeigler], we’ll pick it apart and make it pop.”

At 35, Granduciel is a bit too young to have seen the Dead in their prime, but the “I’m doing fine” message behind “Touch Of Grey” fits snugly into his ethos. For all of the idle, and frankly pointless, speculation that has grown out of trying to dissect his music and his lyrics—many have wondered if he feels lonely, paranoid and isolated, if he is a tortured artist seeking impossible perfection or a little of both—Granduciel himself comes across as an extremely easygoing and affable guy. He concedes that making Lost in the Dream was pretty far from a picnic, and there were times when living completely inside his own head for weeks at a time “could get a little weird,” but digging deep into the album reveals something else entirely. From the Kraftwerk-meets-“Young Turks”- era Rod Stewart vibes of “Burning” (which will likely open the band’s new set) to the inspired themes of the title cut (“Love’s the key to the things that you see...”), a very real sense of energy, expectation and hope shines through. If brazen, badass rock music is meant to do anything beyond stir our inner rebel, then it should at least make us feel good— both of which, in the end, are two sides of the same coin.

“That line from ‘Lost in the Dream’ wasn’t just a throwaway line,” Granduciel says intently. “It came out of that original moment at night in my house. I think it’s just about— you’ve gotta try to find happiness, and try to figure out your purpose. And if that will bring you happiness, you’ve just gotta surround yourself with good people, whether it’s your bandmates, or a romantic relationship, or social acquaintances or whatever. And I think again, I was singing a line like that before I was really living what the record became. And now I’m living it.”

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